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I have been reading some analyses of the philosophy of "modernism," including Jeffrey Alexander's article, "Modern, Anti, Post and Neo*" in the New Left Review last year, and Bruno Latour, We have never been Modern. (Harvard Press, 93). It strikes me that they look only (at least, mainly) at the discourse about modernity, not its historical or real-world manifestations. Looking at these phenomena, I see them as very real, continuing, and world-shaking in their impact.
I also see them as having powerful negative as well as positive effects which cannot be detached from each other -- it's like taking a strong medicine that may both save your life and incapacitate you for life -- you may put up with the side effects in order to get the positive ones; after you have taken it, you cannot disgorge it but you must live with it. In view of today's tragic news of the crash of a TWA 747, it is timely to say that although jet planes normally take you where you want to go with astonishing speed, they can sometimes kill you. The only way to be certain that will not happen is never to enter an airplane. That's what I think modernity and modernization are like -- what's different now is that the negative (para-modern) side-effects are much more salient and visible than they were a hundred or two hundred years ago.
Three hundred years ago, modernity had started but it was scarcely visible. Today, the global impact of the three main forces of modernity (as I see it) are overwhelming and they reinforce and need each other: industrialism, democracy and nationalism. No one of them could have worked by itself, and all depended on the empowerment of capitalists. As I see it, capitalism has been with us for a very long time, but capitalists were politically marginalized in all major countries -- they gained power only in trading cities or towns because the major powers of each period needed and tolerated them, but only so long as they remained politically marginalized. As they gained power they were able to launch projects which, by the 19th century, had successfully launched the Industrial Revolution which has driven a global transformation.
This and other "revolutions" do not wipe out all that preceded them. Rather, we have to understand that most of what existed before modernity (i.e. the pre-modern) remains with us today -- it has not vanished and we could not live without it. We walk as our ancestors did, but also take automobiles and airplanes; we use language as they did but add computers and cyberspace; many of us believe in sprits and divine forces even though the dominant paradigm is secular and even atheistic. Thus, I see modernity as an addition to the pre-modern, not as a replacement.
Does this not pave the way for an acceptance of the proposition that all the dynamics of pre-modern civilizations may also have survived, in varying degrees, in different parts of our world system? If so, could we untangle the manifestations of ethnicity that arose before modernity from those that have followed and, no doubt, greatly reinforced it? If so we may be able to see how ethnic conflicts have always been with our ancestors and also understand why they should be so much more horrifying today.
To understand these changes, we need to confront the sea changes wrought by modernity. The empowerment of capitalists led to regimes willing and able to support the industrial revolution -- the major concrete support system for all modern states, communist or capitalist in philosophy and life-style. Industrialism could not long co-exist with monarchic power and had to lead to the anti-monarchic movements that produced republics and "modern" large-scale democracies -- or oligocracies as I prefer to call them! It also generated highly visible urban poverty and powered the movements that produced socialism and communism. Eventually it also produced imperialism and the global conquests which consolidated the global scale of our world-system. To see the intentensity of interdependence in our world system today does not conflict with perceptions of the world-systems that arose much earlier in time.
The rise of state-powered nationalism created modern states and was, I think, necessary for the success of both the industrialization and democracy projects. However, the rise of modern empires undermined nationalism by creating marginalized dependent peoples who were denied the benefits of both industrialization and democracy while, simultaneously, acquiring the norms of nationalism. The fatal weakness in all oligocracies was the anger it produced in the minds of those from whom the promised benefits of democracy were withheld -- small wonder they soon organized themselves to rebel and take power away from their imperial masters.
In the ashes of all the modern empires, the goals of industrialization and democracy prevail, even though typically not achieved. Above all, ethnic nationalism has become a driving force but, instead of resulting from state nationalism and the centripetal forces that produced powerful states, it produces rebellions against states and the centrifugal forces that are tearing these states apart. Thus the "Turmoil among Nations" about which I have written (see my Web Page) is turmoil between states and ethnic nations more than between states (as nation states).
I believe the era of great wars between large states is over and turmoil within states (including inter-state interventions to restore order) has already taken its place -- but its macro-level scale cannot yet be grasped. Instead, we tend to see it as some kind of unfortunate breakdown in the emerging world system in which "history" has ended and democratic capitalism will prevail everywhere, with peace and order. Would that it were so, but I fear this is an empty dream. Instead, we must confront a future in which escalating violence generated by ethnonational rebellions against fragile states whose effective power is also declining for other para-modern reasons.
For a basic statement of the author's views about ethnonational conflicts as a rising threat in the contemporary world see his paper, "Turmoil among Nations"
For a discussion of the concept of , see the author's recent paper for the Waldo symposium.
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